Israel dramatically sealed itself off from the deadly coronavirus this week by decreeing that all visitors from abroad must be quarantined for 14 days, starting on Thursday.
The Monday night ruling sent shockwaves through diaspora Jewish communities planning to visit family in Israel for Pesach, as a major Jewish travel operator in London described the situation and timing as a “total disaster”.
After what he described as “a day of complex discussions” over how to limit the spread of the virus in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “All those coming to Israel from abroad will be placed in isolation.”
He added: “This is a tough decision, but it is essential to maintain public health, and public health precedes everything.”
Foreign visitors unable to evidence how and where they will self-isolate for 14 days will not be allowed into the country, which had 50 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Monday evening.
Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said the measure would be effective immediately for all Israelis returning to the country. Currently 268,000 Israelis are abroad. Among them is journalism student Jonathan Shamir, currently in London.
“I was supposed to be starting a new job at Ha’aretz in Tel Aviv at the end of March, but I will need to go into self-isolation for two weeks when I return,” Shamir said, speaking to Jewish News.
“I will need to speak to my new landlord to check I can move in earlier, so that I have a place to quarantine. Luckily, my employers have also been very understanding and we are in regular communication.”
Among the many British Jews who this week had to shelve their Israel plans was Hertforshire-based retiree Dorian, who had been due to spend five days with his wife in Tel Aviv from 19 March, followed by ten days with friends in Petah Tikvah, returning on 5 April.
“I’m not going anymore,” he said. “El Al have allowed us to freeze our tickets to be used by the end of July, but have said they will be flexible depending on the situation.”
Israel had already imposed travel bans on visitors from some countries with high numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases such as France and Germany, but Monday night’s ruling now affects British Jewish families in the run-up to Jewish holidays.
David Segal, managing director of London-based West End Travel, which helps Jewish families arrange trips to Israel, said: “It’s not a disaster, it’s a mega disaster, especially to Jewish operators.”
He said: “We’ve spent the last six months planning for Pesach. We have 180 passengers due to fly with British Airways. We took a big risk to take 180 seats but we filled every one. Now people are cancelling, understandably. As a company we will try to refund everyone but to do that we’ll take a massive hit.”
Containment measures have not just hit flights to Israel, with the UK’s Jewish military association AJEX forced to postpone plans for its 49-person delegation to fly to the site of former Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany on 19 April to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation.
The organisation said it planned to rearrange the trip for later in the year and was currently seeking to get refunds. Segal said dealing with refund requests was “taking up all my time right now,” adding that customers were united in why they thought Israel had closed its doors.
“I’ve heard it time and time again, people keep saying ‘it’s to keep [US president Donald] Trump happy.’ Israel wanted to ban arrivals from areas of the US that were experiencing outbreaks like California and New York but knew that this would really anger Trump so they instituted a blanket ban, which of course hits the UK hard.”
Asked about the ramifications of Israel’s decision, Segal said it would be “ferociously damaging” to the Israeli tourism industry, adding that El Al has already cancelled some flights.
On Tuesday morning, an El Al spokeswoman said the airline “continues to operate from London but will perform immediate commercial adjustments as a result of Israeli government directives”.
Segal said: “BA are still flying, they won’t cancel lightly, but if people aren’t flying they’ll have to. If you get caught wandering around [Israel] when you should be in quarantine you’ll get jailed for seven years – it’s enough to keep anyone inside.”
He added: “It’s a total, total disaster. Anyone who says they haven’t had cancellations is lying. We’ve been saving for a rainy day for 30 years and this is definitely a rainy day. We should survive but others will struggle, and it will have a knock-on effect. It always starts with travel but doesn’t end there.”
Ben Robbins at Bespoke Kosher Travel said the outbreak was “having an impact on all areas of life and the travel industry is no different,” adding: “For us it is business as usual. We continue to monitor the situation and advise our clients accordingly.”
He suggested that government advice was the key, saying: “While the US and UK governments have not advised against travel to destinations other than the main epicentres, clients are continuing to plan trips across the world.”